LOS BANOS, Calif. (AP) — Agents have dismantled a San Joaquin Valley branch of a notorious Northern California gang with ties to the state’s prisoners and Mexican drug cartels, arresting 101 suspected members and raiding more than 50 properties, authorities announced Wednesday.
The gang, Nuestra Familia, is often controlled from within the California prison system, where authorities estimate 2,000 of the state’s 162,000 inmates are formal members. Leaders use smuggled cell phones, messengers and other means to direct tens of thousands of street-level Norteno gang members involved in drug trafficking and violent crime in Northern California’s farm towns.
Nuestra Familia — “our family” in Spanish — is “one of the most vicious and lethal gangs in our state, state Attorney General Kamala Harris said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The crackdown this week by more than 300 state, federal and local agents was the fifth, and by far the largest, sweep in two years targeting gang members from the Central Valley to the central coast. Authorities say they have captured much of the gang’s street leadership, cutting off its income and communications.
“We’ve targeted the regiment commanders,” said John Silveira, a special agent with the attorney general’s Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement in Fresno. “This is like the last of the bunch. We’ve hit them hard. I feel we’re really making an impact.”
The arrests Tuesday included the two street commanders who controlled operations in Madera and Merced counties, including Gonzalo “Gunner” Esquivel in the farming community of Dos Palos.
Agents stormed his one-story home next to a cotton field in the town about 140 miles southeast of San Francisco, breaking down the door with a 50-pound battering ram as a surveillance helicopter swooped overhead just before 7 a.m. Tuesday. Eight agents in body armor and carrying automatic weapons found the 30-year-old still in bed.
The nylon shorts he pulled on had $1,155 in the pockets, while a drug-sniffing dog led agents to another $3,300 in a cell phone box tucked in a drawer.
The six-foot-tall, 300-pound Esquivel, his body covered in gang symbols and tattoos of women, was one of eight defendants secretly indicted by a federal grand jury before his arrest. He was set to appear in federal court in Fresno on Wednesday. He declined to talk to investigators and made no mention of having a lawyer.
“Literally, they’ve been terrorizing these two counties,” Harris said.
Silveira said agents arrested the second street commander, Felipe Gutierrez, 36, of Madera, as he drove a produce truck Tuesday near Fresno. Silveira called him the “highest-ranking NF that we know of on the outside” of prison.
Gutierrez and Esquivel each were indicted on charges of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and distribution of methamphetamine.
“I really do believe we have dismantled the leadership of two major regiments of this gang,” Harris said.
Arrest warrants were issued for alleged gang members on charges of suspicion of attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, aggravated mayhem, felons possessing firearms, drug trafficking, and participating in a criminal street gang. All but three were in custody by Tuesday night, including four juveniles, with the youngest being 14.
The raids also yielded 27 weapons, including eight assault weapons; $64,000 in cash, including $25,000 at one residence; roughly 2.5 pounds of methamphetamine and another half-pound of crystal methamphetamine; 34 marijuana plants and about a half-pound of marijuana.
Authorities say the gang sent packages containing marijuana to members in the Madera County Jail in April. When they discovered their smuggler took some of the drugs, he was stabbed. Underage members were linked to four separate shootings and one stabbing in Los Banos around the same time.
U.S. Attorney Ben Wagner called the raids “the latest step in a sustained campaign to put a hammer” on the gang members, whom he said “have been spreading a wave of crime up and down the Central Valley.”
Investigators said the gang created false paperwork for vehicles used to smuggle at least 20 pounds of methamphetamine across the Mexican border and into the San Joaquin Valley. The valley was once known for biker gangs and, later, Mexican gangs that set up volatile methamphetamine laboratories that eventually supplied much of the country.
John Donnelly, the agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Fresno office, said new U.S. laws and crackdowns on the raw materials used to make the highly addictive stimulant have pushed production into Mexico and other countries where bulk ingredients can be obtained more easily.
Money from street-level drug sales worked its way to the prison-based leadership and Mexican drug connections, said Special Agent Michelle Gregory of the attorney general’s Division of Law Enforcement.
“There is no question there is a connection with the cartels in Mexico and the crime we’re seeing on the streets in California,” said Harris, who was elected last year and has made confronting multinational gangs a priority for her office. “They need to know we are watching them and we will take them out.